The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is at a critical juncture in its efforts to push its Peter Zumthor-designed building project closer to the finish line. On Tuesday, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors will hold its long-awaited vote on whether to officially approve the $650-million project and authorize $117.5 million in county funds to the museum.
As he readies for that milestone meeting, museum director Michael Govan is facing criticism over the project’s latest architectural designs. Plans included in the final environmental impact report (EIR), released on March 22, featured tweaks amounting to a 10% reduction in size — from 387,500 square feet in designs announced in October 2017 to 347,000 square feet.
In a conversation with The Times, Govan responded to the criticism and defended his vision for a future LACMA campus. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.
The museum appears to be “shrinking.” How do you reconcile spending so much money to lose gallery space at a time when the museum collection is growing?
We were aware that this building project would be not as big as the current space it was replacing because that was a jumbled mess of galleries. We were trying to replace the space; it was a replacement project. We already added on 100,000 square feet between [the recent permanent additions] BCAM and the Resnick Pavilion, so we’ve already grown pretty dramatically. What’s happening in this whole conversation is that no one’s seeing the big picture of the 20-year plan.
We grew first — projects can only be so big in fundraising, you weren’t going to be able to raise $800 million or a billion dollars. So the idea of [building] the Resnick Pavilion allowed us to grow in steps instead of trying to do it all at once. Now we have 100,000 square feet on the [west] campus. So now we can close the old buildings with no real huge negative, because we have a lot of space.
There’s a 10% reduction in the square footage between the draft EIR and final EIR, true — it’s actually 9%, but who’s counting? That’s a nonissue.
It made more sense to distribute our exhibition volume — the experience of LACMA — toward the new property. So that was an objective: lighten and open up park space. We’ll have 220,000 square feet total for LACMA on Wilshire Boulevard between four buildings [BCAM, the Resnick Pavilion, the new Zumthor building and the museum’s Bruce Goff-designed Pavilion for Japanese Art].
BCAM and the Resnick added 100,000 square feet — but aren’t those spaces typically used for temporary exhibitions, as opposed to dedicated space for the permanent collection?
They don’t have to be. The entire ground floor of BCAM has often been used for the permanent collection, like the Richard Serra; we’re going to put our modern collections in there. We just showed European art from the permanent collection there. We are not at all thinking about the campus in terms of special exhibitions space and collections space in the sense that those things ebb and flow with time. It’s total space that’s the issue. That’s the way we’re going to look at the future of the museum and that’s the objective, to spread out the spaces.
The new museum won’t have space for curatorial offices — which the current museum buildings do have. Are you concerned that the curatorial staff, if based across the street in rented offices, will be disembodied from the art? And is the added operational cost an issue?
Not at all. Museum construction costs anywhere from $1,500 to $2,000 dollars per square foot. It makes no sense these days to build too many offices into buildings. The highest and best use of the space in the park is for public access and public exhibition space. The curatorial staff, currently, to walk from my [LACMA campus] office to the galleries, to the Resnick, is a longer walk than from my conference room across the street. There are already curators there working for the last four years. So we’ve already tested it.
And to be clear, we have land. If there’s a premium on office space and we want to build our own office space, we can do that. We just have to raise more money. It’s just that right now, the economics don’t favor building over leasing for the current time horizon.
Will the galleries along the perimeter of the new building, with all that glass, create light levels that will make it hard to display art?
No. The building is balanced between light that is totally controlled and light that is natural. So what you find in the building is lots of galleries with no natural light — 65% has very little or zero natural light — and the rest of the museum has this beautiful space for all kinds of art that is less light sensitive. So, for example, we have a lot of marble sculptures, ceramics, ancient American art, things that love light.
One of the big mistakes in museums is that they go for the lowest common denominator, which is a black box with electric light, for flexibility. But a lot of art, sculpture in particular, loves light and has been deprived of that light. We want a balance of closed-in spaces and light spaces because a lot of studies have shown that allowing natural light is not only awesome for three-dimensional objects, to make them more lively, but it’s wonderful for people because it reduces the famous museum fatigue.
Are you at all worried about the Board of Supervisors’ vote on Tuesday?
The county has been our partner in planning. They’ve watched the entire process and understand all the numbers and they’re quite on board with the whole plan. I have no reason to think anything would have changed, there’s no new information, they’ve been part of the EIR process. So no, I am not at all worried that the county isn’t 100% on board.
Is the cost of the Zumthor project still $650 million or has it inched closer to $750 million?
Six hundred-fifty. The project budget went from $600 million to $650 [million] — and it has not changed since then.
What’s the estimated building cost per square foot for the Zumthor building?
The project cost is $650 million. Of that, construction, including demolition, is about $587 [million]. The total square footage you get for the building is 347,000, and the galleries is 110,000. So about $1,873 per square foot, plus or minus.
The plan was that we would get all the “close money” raised first, meaning friends and family. So the board, the name of the building, Mr. [David] Geffen, the [A. Jerrold] Perenchio estate, those are friends and family because they’re close. And the county. There’s a lot of skepticism out there and we’re just waiting for the county approval to really launch the public phase of the campaign to finish it. We’re not worried.
How soon after Tuesday’s vote will you kick off the public fundraising campaign?
How’s Friday sound?!
LACMA is fundraising for the Zumthor project while simultaneously developing satellite locations in South Los Angeles, a project that not only requires additional fundraising, but is also proving problematic in that one site needs hazardous waste clean-up. Do the simultaneous fundraising efforts cut into one another?
No, not at all. They’re non-overlapping interests. It turns out that people who are interested in those [satellite] projects tend to be people who are not at all interested in funding the mothership. They tend to be people who are specifically interested in LACMA’s sharing of its resources to communities that wouldn’t otherwise have access. Everyone is proud of the money going into the mothership; and everyone who’s funding the Zumthor building seems to be happy about the potential for expansion. But I’ve found over the past year and a half that they’re very different audiences.
The Autry Museum is looking to transfer ownership of the Southwest Museum and recently put out a call for proposals from interested parties. Might LACMA enter the ring as a potential owner, creating yet more satellite space?
It’s been discussed. To be frank, the problem with all these issues in Los Angeles — the Zumthor building included and the old LACMA buildings — is the cost of seismic upgrades for old buildings is really high. So we’re not going to respond specifically because we have our hands full finishing the Zumthor building and the timing is not great. But we’ve opened the door to partnership and to collection loans.
How do you respond to criticism that the building, with each redesign, is becoming increasingly benign — from futuristic, edgy and charcoal-colored to a flatter, cream-colored structure that one critic likened to a coffee table?
Well, the black building, some liked it and some didn’t. There were two issues with the black building — when it moved across the street and more out into the open, the thoughtful thing to do was to be in keeping with the architecture around it. And if you look at the [William] Pereira building, the May Co., the Renzo Piano buildings, they’re all light buildings. And the street’s kind of light. So there was a respectfulness thinking about the neighbors and environment. We got a lot of negative feedback through the EIR. And, it turns out, a black building attracts too much heat in the sun.
I’m just going to say, for the record — and I believe it fully — that through the process of refinements, we now have a better building. People may not be able to see that in graphic form, because they’re thinking about pictures and renderings. But when you think about the experience of the building, and how it will deal with light and shadow, and how it will feel, I’m 100% convinced it’s a better building than anything that’s been presented as part of the design process.
And it’s really big — I don’t know that it wants to be any bigger than it is.